“What if I should tell you that you are mistaken—that all of them are mistaken?”
“Don’t,” she said softly. “That would only be smashing what is left of the ideal. I think I couldn’t bear that.”
“God in Heaven!” he said, under his breath. “And you’ve been calling this friendship! Ardea, girl, it’s love!”
She shook her head slowly.
“No,” she rejoined gravely. “At one time I thought—I was afraid—that it might be. But now I know it isn’t.”
“How do you know it?”
“Because love, as I think of it, is stronger than the traditions, stronger than anything else in the world. And the traditions are still with me. I admit the existence of the social pale, and as long as I live within it I have a right to demand certain things of the man who marries me.”
“And love doesn’t demand anything,” he said, putting the remainder of the thought into words for her. “You are right. If I could clear myself with a word, I should not say it.”
“Because your—loyalty, let us call it, is too precious to be exchanged for anything else you could give me in place of it—esteem, respect, and all the other well-behaved and virtuous bestowals.”
“But the loyalty is based on the belief that you are trying to earn the well-behaved approvals,” she continued.
“No, it isn’t. It exists ‘in spite of’ everything, and not ‘because of’ anything. The traditions may try to make you stand it on the other leg, it’s a way they have; but the fact remains.”
She shook her head in deprecation.
“The ‘traditions,’ are about to send me into the house, and the principal problem is yet untouched. What have you done with Nancy?”
He told her briefly and exactly, adding nothing and omitting nothing; and her word for it was “impossible.”
“Don’t you understand?” she objected. “I may choose to believe that this home making for poor Nan and her waif is merely a bit of tardy justice on your part and honor you for it. But nobody else will take that view of it. If you keep her in that little cabin of yours, Mountain View Avenue will have a fit—and very properly.”
“I don’t see why it should,” he protested densely.
“Don’t you? That’s because you are still so hopelessly primeval. People won’t give you credit for the good motive; they will quote that Scripture about the dog and the sow. You must think of some other way.”
“Supposing I say I don’t care a hang?”
“Oh, but you do. You have your father and mother and—and me to consider, however reckless you may be for yourself and Nancy. You mustn’t leave her where she is for a single day.”
“I can leave her there if I like. I’ve told her she may stay as long as she wants to.”
They had paused in front of the great door, and Ardea’s hand was on the knob.
“No,” she said decisively, “you will have a perfect hornets’ nest about your ears. Every move you make will be watched and commented on. Don’t you see that you are playing the part of the headstrong, obstinate boy again?”